Three police officers in Columbus, Ohio, are being prosecuted for their actions during protests over the death of George Floyd last year, when officers in cities in the United States regularly used force to break up protests.
The nationwide protests have sparked allegations of police misconduct in many U.S. cities. But in only a few – especially New York, Philadelphia and Buffalo, NY – were any officers charged with crimes, and the officers in Philadelphia and Buffalo were later cleared. In Columbus last year, the city ordered a special prosecutor and an independent investigator to evaluate allegations of misconduct by police during the protests there.
This led to the announcement on Wednesday that three officers had been charged. The police department said the officers were assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Traci Shaw, an officer, was charged with three counts of assault, breach of duty and interference with civil rights in connection with a protest on May 30, 2020, five days after Mr. Floyd was killed in the Minneapolis police station.
Officer Shaw is accused of leaving her police vehicle behind, approaching people on a sidewalk and spraying them with pepper. According to a complaint, one woman told the investigating officers that she and the others who were sprayed did not provoke the officer at all. The woman said she told Officer Shaw that they were walking home.
Holly Kanode, a sergeant, is each accused of forgery and dereliction of duty. While assisting in the arrest of a woman on May 30, 2020, she was heard in camera footage telling an officer that the woman grabbed another officer and jerked him to the ground. According to the indictment, the footage from the body room and another video submitted to the city showed no assault.
Phillip Walls, an officer, has been charged with two counts of assault, breach of duty and interference with civil rights. On May 29, 2020, he spray-painted “peaceful protesters” on a sidewalk with pepper spray, including an “unknown older black female” previously sprayed with pepper spray, according to a complaint. He then sprayed the woman with pepper again, along with another woman who tried to help her, according to the complaint.
“We will continue to work to identify additional officers who may have committed misconduct,” Kathleen Garber, the special prosecutor, said in a statement.
Mark C. Collins, a lawyer whose firm represents the three officers, said in an interview that they intend to plead not guilty and that “we are going to fight this tooth and nail during the trial.”
He said that the officers acted within their duties on the basis of their orders, that the charges were mainly motivated by the money spent on the investigation, and that the senior police officers escaped accountability.
“Instead of addressing it from top to bottom, they simply made people under the scapegoats,” he said.
The city of Columbus used Sergeant Shaw as an expert to testify in federal court about the use of force, and she teaches the police academy, Collins said.
The charges against the officers were filed because the Columbus Police Department was scrutinized after four fatal police shootings of black people from December to April. Each led to intense protests, including one on April 12 in which protesters broke through a door at police headquarters.
Although nearly 30 percent of Columbus’ residents are black, 85 percent of the police force is white. However, according to an operational review, just over half of all cases of use in 2017, the most recent year, were directed at black residents.
Andrew Ginther, the mayor of Columbus, said in a statement that the department’s response to the George Floyd protests “did not meet my or the community’s expectations.”
“The fact is that some Columbus police officers acted outside the policy, abused their authority and possibly committed crimes,” he said in the statement. ‘Therefore, we engaged independent investigators to determine whether criminal charges should be filed, and today we received the answer. Officers who break the law should expect to be held accountable. ”